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Rogelio ‘Banjo’ Barcenilla US-based chess GM remains a pinoy at heart

Filipino Grandmaster Rogelio “Banjo” Barcenilla, his wife Lilibeth and only child Gabriel had made the state of Arizona in the United States their home for the past 15 years.

GM Rogelio “Banjo” Barcenilla ponders his next
move in one of the countless tournamnents that
he had joined.  Barceiilla is in the country to see
action in the Battle of the Grandmasters in a bid
to qualify for a slot in the Philippine team that will
see action in the 2014 Chess Olympiad in Tromso,
Norway.
Banjo and his family migrated to the US in 1999 and like most transplanted Filipinos in the “land of milk and honey,” the Barcenillas had to work doubly hard to live comfortably and secure a good future for Gabriel.

But Banjo,  a former child chess whiz who made it to the 1988 Chess Olympiad in Thessaloniki, Greece at a tender age of 15, (where Philippines placed 7th, its highest finish ever), has remained a true Filipino – and a Filipino chess player – at heart.

Already an American citizen (he carries an American passport that allows him to go back-and-forth in the US and the Philippines) Banjo spends his own money in pursuit of another stint in the Chess Olympiad as part of the Philippine team after having represented the country in the prestigious tournament thrice in the past.

Aside from the 1988 Olympiad, Banjo was also a member of the Philippine team that saw action in the 1992 Manila edition and the 1996 Olympiad in Yerevan, Armenia.

He’s currently in the country for a full two weeks to see action in the 2014 National Chess Championship “Battle of the Grandmasters” being held at the Philippine Sports Commission function room.  The tournament, which kicked off on Saturday, June 21,  serves as a qualifying tournament for the 2014 Chess Olympiad in Tromso, Norway two months from now.

Up for grabs in the tournament are two slots (possibly three) for the Philippine national team and a cash prize of P100,000.

Banjo, however, flew all the way from the US not because of the prize money, but because he really wanted to again carry the country’s flag in the Chess Olympiad.

 “Gusto ko talagang makasali at ma-represent ang Pilipinas and I’ve been doing this for the past four years.  I’ve been spending my own money for a chance to qualify,” Banjo says, who speaks Filipino without any trace of American ‘twang.’

Like other Filipino chess players now living in the US,  Banjo could have easily switched allegiance and join the US chess federation and become part of the US chess squad. But the former two time Philippine and Asian junior champion refused to abandon the country of his birth.

“Alam ko naman ang pinanggalingan ko at hindi ko talaga iiwan yung federation ko.  Pinoy pa rin tayo at para sa Pilipinas pa rin tayo maglalaro,” says Banjo, who was finally conferred a GM title in 2010 after a long delay caused by political wranglings among chess leaders in the early 2000s.

Banjo as businessman

Banjo’s inspirations:  wife Lilibeth
and son Gabriel, a rising R&B
singer-dancer in the US
While in the country,  Banjo left in his wife Lilibeth’s capable hands the running of their business in Chandler, Arizona called Care Home, a string of five hospice houses which they started in 2002.

Like Banjo,  Lilibeth Lee-Barcenilla plays chess and was a former member of the national women’s team but has stopped playing competitively to help Banjo run the business and raise their son Gabriel, who is now 21.

Banjo says he is thankful for Lilibeth’s undying support for his bid to again qualify for the Chess Olympiad.

“Being a member of the Team Philippines particularly in Chess Olympiad is a priceless achievement and an  ultimate dream for every dedicated chess player.  I will not let this opportunity to just pass by,” adds Banjo, who is also best remembered for winning a bronze medal in the 1991 World Junior Chess Championship and for winning back-to-back titles in the Open Invitational Junior tournament (1989 Dubai and 1990 India.

In Arizona,  Banjo,  who boasts of an Elo rating of 2475 (he reached as high as 2518 in 2010), keeps his mind sharp and further hones his chess skills by studying new chess softwares and books. 

In preparing for the Battle of Grandmasters tournament, Banjo says he spends at least two hours practicing and studying.  He also finds time to play with a team called Arizona Scorpions,  a team that plays against other state teams in the US, where he occupies the top board.

Life in the US

But overall, Banjo says his main focus is in running the business that he and his wife started. 

“Sa US, hindi ka pwedeng umasa sa chess skills mo although maraming tournaments doon at maganda rin ang mga prize money.  Unlike dito sa atin, di ka pwedeng mag-relax lang, kailangan talaga kumayod ka ng kumayod kasi wala ka naming ibang aasahan.”

Banjo may not see his chess talents imbued by his son Gabriel, but he is happy nonetheless that his only child is pursuing his own dream.

Gabriel is a budding singer in the US and has joined several competitions, including The Voice, a popular musical competition that has already reached Philippine shores.  In fact, Banjo says, Gabriel has already fronted for several band acts in Arizona.

“Masaya siyempre ako para sa kanya, kasi kahit di siya nag-chess,  sinunod niya naman yung pangarap niya. Mahirap naman kasing pilitin kung di talaga gusto ng bata,”  Banjo says.

At 42 years old, Banjo has actually paid his dues as a chess champions several times in the past, but he continues to pursue his dream of representing the country in the biggest chess stage in the country.

“Siguro hanggang tumanda na ako, basta may opportunity na ganito, sasali pa rin ako. Pinoy tayo kaya dapat lang na mahalin natin kung sino tayo.”

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